UPDATED: Friday, April 13, 2012 - 8:53am
CENTRAL FALLS, Rhode Island — The blue-and-white banner exclaiming "anticipation" on the front of Central Falls High School seems like a cruel joke for an institution so chronically troubled that its leaders decided to fire every teacher by year's end.
No more than half those instructors would be hired back under a federal option that has enraged the state's powerful teachers union, earned criticism from students, and praise from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and some parents.
The mass firings were approved by the school district's board of trustees Tuesday night after talks failed between Superintendent Frances Gallo and the local teachers union over implementing changes, including offering more after-school tutoring and a longer school day. The teachers say they want more pay for the additional work.
"If it's only an hour or two, I think teachers can afford to do that," said Robert Rivera, 40, who worries about sending his 13-year-old daughter to the troubled high school next year. "The teachers are overpaid."
The shake-up comes as Rhode Island's new education commissioner, Deborah Gist, pushes the state to compete for nearly $13 million in federal funding to reform the worst 5 percent of its schools, including in Central Falls.
To get the money, schools must choose one of four paths set under federal law, including mass firings. Gallo has said she initially hope to avoid layoffs by adopting a plan that would have lengthened the school day and required teachers to get additional training and offer more after-school tutoring.
Central Falls High has long been one of the worst-performing in Rhode Island. Just 7 percent of 11th graders tested in the fall were proficient in math. Only 33 percent were proficient in writing, and just 55 percent were proficient in reading. In 2008, just 52 percent of students graduated within four years and 30 percent dropped out.
Shantel Joseph, 42, who lives just a block from the school, worries her 16-year-old son might not graduate because he struggles with low grades and appears to bring home little homework. She opposed mass firings in a state that already suffers from nearly 13 percent unemployment.
"It's a bad idea, because I know they need a job," Joseph said. "They need to work. Maybe they should talk to the teachers."
Christian Manco, 15, was among four boys who ran out a side door on the high school Wednesday during what he said was a walk-out of students in support of their teachers.
"The school wants them to work more hours for no extra pay," Manco said, explaining what teachers had told him.
The negotiations bogged down when officials for the teachers' union asked for more pay if they were going to be doing more work at the school.
It remains unclear whether a compromise might emerge. Gist said Wednesday that it's not a negotiation, and that she's awaiting more detailed plans from the superintendent. But in an interview on WPRO-AM, she appeared to leave the door open to other options.
"If the district decided that they wanted to ask for more time and said that they wanted to reconsider, then I would have to take that under consideration. But right now, that's not the case," she said.
A phone message left with Gallo was not returned.